Tom Sermanni

What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

Report: FIFA president backs 48-team World Cup, 16 groups of three teams

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA President Gianni Infantino poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Gianni Infantino wants to freshen things up a bit.

The new president of FIFA has been steadfast in his desire to increase the number of teams participating at a World Cup to 48 — after all, it was a huge part of his presidential mandate which got plenty of the smaller nations of the soccer world on board to vote for him — and reports are now circulating that he has indeed backed a 48-team World Cup from 2026 onwards.

It is also being reported by AFP that Infantino wants to try something new and have 16 groups with three teams in each, as the top two teams would go through from each group to a Round of 32 knockout stage.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad an idea.

It would certainly eliminate some of the boring third group games we have endured at most World Cups recently as the two teams going through to the last 16 are usually sewn up by that point and the two other teams are left around with another game to play. However, it will be intriguing to see how the game schedule is set up in the three team group scenario.

The cynical folks out there suggest that Infantino is merely trying to ramp up more revenue from increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 but when you look at it, the number of games would actually stay the same if there were 16 groups with three teams in each.

Think about it: more upset stories, more first-time qualifiers and more riding on each of the two group games for each team before heading straight to the knockout rounds.

“Ronaldo, Messi too old to play for us” say Bundesliga club

Barcelona's Lionel Messi,foreground, escapes Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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RB Leipzig currently sits top of the Bundesliga and they’ve taken the German soccer scene by storm.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars

They’ve also upset plenty of traditionalists in Germany with the Red Bull energy drink company bankrolling their rise through the German leagues and after being founded in 2009, just seven years later they are top of the Bundesliga, three points clear of Bayern Munich after 13 games of the season.

Now, Leipzig may have upset Cristiano Ronald and Lionel Messi.

Speaking to the Associated Press, the man who has been plotting Leipzig’s success since 2012, sporting director Ralf Rangnick, had the following to say about Messi and Ronaldo hypothetically signing for Leipzig.

“It would be absurd to think that it could work with them here,” Rangnick said. “They are both too old and too expensive.”

Wow.

Ronaldo is 32 and Messi is 29 and both seem to have at least five or more years left in the tank for Real and Barca respectively.

However, Rangnick’s comments are perhaps more about the make up of Leipzig’s team which is the youngest in the Bundesliga and as the architect of this squad he has purposefully constructed a strong youth element which has helped his side rise from the fourth division and up into the German top-flight.

RB Leipzig is widely disliked in Germany for being owned by Red Bull who have spent huge sums of money, and now they’ve just blown their chance of ever signing Ronaldo or Messi.

Oh wait, they didn’t want them anyway…

One man takes blame for Swansea’s poor season

SWANSEA, WALES - DECEMBER 20:  Swansea Chairman Huw Jenkins (C) attends the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and West Ham United at the Liberty Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Huw Jenkins has been with Swansea City through the good times and the bad.

He is blaming himself for the recent bad spell.

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The long-time chairman of the Swans — Jenkins was part of a consortium which saved the south Wales club back in 2002 when it was teetering on the brink of extinction — has been at the forefront of their incredible rise from the fourth-tier to the Premier League plus becoming League Cup winners and also competing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League.

Yet, this season Swansea’s progress has stalled as they currently sit two points adrift at the foot of the Premier League table and three points from safety with a massive relegation six-points against Sunderland at the Liberty Stadium coming up this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Speaking about their struggles, Jenkins put the blame squarely on his shoulders.

“I fully understand their feelings, being a supporter myself,” Jenkins said. “When things don’t go well somebody has to take the blame and I fully accept the responsibility. But let’s not forget there’s a long way to go this season, and we’ve got a lot of choices to make between now and then to make sure we survive in this league.”

The local businessman has told it like it is, as well as admiting some errors with player recruitment over the summer as both Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams were allowed to leave and you easily argue they weren’t sufficiently replaced at the Liberty Stadium.

All of this has led to current manager Bob Bradley (he replaced Italian coach Francesco Guidolin after the Swans picks up just four points from their opening seven games of the season) reportedly already being under pressure, as a report in the Daily Telegraph suggested that a huge review is currently taking place at the request of American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein who took sole control of the club in July.

Jenkins, who has been left in control of day-to-day matters by Kaplan and Levein, has also been taking plenty of stick from the fans for selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club which allowed the Americans to take their holdings up to 68 percent and take full ownership of the club. The local businessman made himself just over $10 million in the process which angered many. All is not well on and off the pitch in south Wales right now.

With Bradley’s team conceding 19 goals in his seven PL games in charge so far, the obvious area where they have to improve is in central defense. If given time, there’s no doubt Bradley can improve that but the most concerning thing for the Swans is the quality of players, especially defenders, they currently possess.

Until that changes (i.e. acquistions in the January transfer window) then Bradley’s hands are tied.

Jenkins believes the club will be able to spend big in the upcoming transfer window and boy will Swansea need to do some shrewd, and extensive, business if they’re going to drag themselves out of trouble and up the Premier League table.

The good news out of all of this is the next six games are pivotal in their season. Between now and Jan. 2 Bradley’s side face Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth at home, plus have trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace. All of those games are against direct relegation rivals and quite simply the Swans must win at least three or four to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up.

Report: Alexis Sanchez offered $505,000 per week to play in China

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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This is outrageous.

Alexis Sanchez, 27, has reportedly been offered a contract worth over $505,000 a week (that’s around $26.2 million a year) to play in China.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

The Daily Mail claims that several clubs from the Chinese Super League have already reached out to Sanchez and have offered the huge contract to try and entice him to play in China.

With just 18 months left on his current contract at Arsenal, the Chilean forward is in the form of his life with 11 Premier League goals in the opening 14 games of the season. That included a hat trick in the 5-1 demolition of West Ham last weekend which underlined just how important “El Nino Maravilla” is to the Gunners.

Reports on Tuesday claimed that both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil (the latter also only has 18 months left on his current contract) want over $370,000 per week from Arsenal if they’re going to sign new deals. That would put them in line with the top earner in the Premier League, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, but it is believed the Gunners do not want to break their wage structure and pay any player over $252,000 per week.

In truth, in world soccer right now only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are above Sanchez with the Chilean forward strutting his stuff out wide and up top in a center forward role.

Ronaldo is currently paid $34.3 million per year by Real Madrid and Messi is paid $42.9 million a year by Barcelona. So, you can see why Sanchez’s head is being turned as he continues to churn out world-class displays for Arsenal and huge offers are coming his way.

With Arsene Wenger‘s future uncertain as his contract runs out at the end of this season, if he can’t entice Sanchez and Ozil to remain at the Emirates Stadium by this summer then Arsenal will have to think about selling both of their attacking superstars or else they’ll lose them for nothing in the summer of 2018.

And when it comes to China there’s no real surprise that this kind of money is being offered to Sanchez, if the reports are true.

Over the past 12 months a huge influx of foreign stars have joined the CSL with China’s President Xi Jinping a huge soccer fan and eager to not only grow the domestic game but links with European clubs and also develop top players for the Chinese national team moving forward with world-class facilities popping up and soccer is now on the school curriculum nationwide too.

Graziano Pelle. Jackson Martinez. Hulk. Ramires. Alex Teixeira. They’ve all joined the CSL in recent years on huge wages. Is Sanchez the next man to make the move if Arsenal can’t pay him what he wants, and probably deserves?